by Ian Mann
March 06, 2015
Ian Mann enjoys a performance by bassist Phil Donkin's all star quartet and takes a look at his recently released album, "The Gate".
Phil Donkin Quartet, Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 04/03/2015.
I first became aware of the bass playing of Sunderland born Phil Donkin way back in 2006 when he appeared on the album “Seesaw”, a quartet date led by the alto saxophonist Christian Brewer. Shortly afterwards he appeared on releases by pianists Gwilym Simcock and Ivo Neame and I recall enjoying a live performance by the Simcock trio featuring Donkin at the Edge Arts centre in Much Wenlock in 2007. The bassist also appeared as a sideman on UK recordings by alto saxophonist Seb Pipe and vocalist Brigitte Beraha.
Brewer once described Donkin as “the new Dave Holland”, an appropriate tag given that Donkin subsequently moved to New York where he lived in Brooklyn and established a name for himself on the highly competitive jazz scene of the “Big Apple”. Donkin now lives in Berlin and works intensively across Europe, “I enjoy changing my environment now and again” he explained to London Jazz News.
Donkin’s list of collaborators from both sides of the Atlantic is impressive and includes guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel and John Abercrombie, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, trombonist Nils Wogram, saxophonists Julian Arguelles and Evan Parker, pianists Marc Copland, Edward Simon and Kevin Hays and drummers Bill Stewart, Ralph Peterson and Nasheet Waits. It’s an impressive CV and a good testimonial as to Donkin’s abilities.
Donkin is currently touring the UK in support of “The Gate”, his début album as a leader, recently released on fellow bassist Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings label. Recorded at Systems Two Studios in Brooklyn the album features an all star international group including Ben Wendel of the band Kneebody on tenor saxophone, rising star Glenn Zaleski on piano and the experienced German born , NY based drummer Jochen Rueckert. Rueckert’s own Whirlwind début “We Make The Rules” was released in the autumn of 2014.
Unfortunately Rueckert was unavailable for the current tour and his place behind the kit will be filled on the majority of the dates by Colin Stranahan, another musician from the busy New York scene. However the first two shows in Poole and Cardiff featured the talents of James Maddren, Donkin’s old sparring partner from the early days of the Gwilym Simcock Trio. Tonight was the second time in a matter of days that I’d seen Maddren performing, he’d played with saxophonist Trish Clowes’ Tangent Quintet on February 28th in Wolverhampton, another show reviewed elsewhere on this site. The supremely adaptable Maddren fitted in brilliantly with the Donkin group as bassist and drummer quickly re-discovered their old chemistry. Maddren is one of those performers I never tire of seeing although on this occasion there was a tinge of personal regret about not getting to see Stranahan play for the very first time.
The album “The Gate” consists of ten original compositions by Donkin in a muscular post bop style, the tunes full of sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic ideas and clearly influenced by his time in New York. The outside material consists of “Introspection” by Thelonious Monk plus a short and unexpected rendition of “Prelude no. 23 in F major” by Dmitri Shostakovich. The best part of the album was played over the course of two absorbing sets at a packed Dempsey’s with the audience swelled by a large and supportive contingent of students from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, their enthusiasm doubtless encouraged by the presence of visiting tutor James Maddren behind the drums.
The quartet began by playing the first three tracks from the album beginning with “La Jurona”, a piece dedicated location in the Canary Islands that Donkin used to visit. Appropriately it was Donkin’s bass that began the tune, quickly joined by the clatter of Maddren’s sticks on rims to create a vaguely Latin feel. The main theme was stated by Wendel on tenor before Zaleski took the first solo. The young pianist, originally from Massachussetts but now based in Brooklyn, is an imaginative and inventive soloist who concentrates his ideas around the middle of the keyboard. He sounded excellent on Dempsey’s splendid grand piano and his playing was refreshingly cliché free. His UK equivalent might be the similarly resourceful Ivo Neame. I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about Mr. Zaleski.
If the pianist was something of an unknown quantity I was more cognisant of the playing of Ben Wendel whose work I was familiar with thanks to the band Kneebody who played a blinding set at Ronnie Scott’s last November as part of the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival. It was interesting to see Wendel playing in a more straight ahead acoustic jazz setting than that of Kneebody where he also utilises a range of electronic effects as part of a group whose unclassifiable music borrows from many sources including hip hop, drum ‘n’ bass and contemporary rock and pop. His tenor feature here offered further evidence that he is a major tenor soloist to be ranked alongside some of the other great New York saxophone names who have graced the Dempsey’s stage, among them Seamus Blake and Donny McCaslin.
“Macon Groove” was named after Macon Street, the Brooklyn thoroughfare on which Donkin used to live. Announcing the tune Donkin described the location as being “very lively, and so is this song”. With it’s seething, knotty theme the piece conveyed something of the urgency of the big city and featured the first major solo from Donkin in which he exhibited many of the virtues that have made him such an in demand musician, a huge tone, great dexterity, an impeccable sense of time and great stamina, qualities that he continued to display throughout the set. His solo was supported by the responsive comping of Zaleski, a facet of the young pianist’s playing that has been publicly praised by his leader. Wendel contributed another excellent solo that evoked more comparisons with saxophone greats such as Chris Potter and the late Michael Brecker, Wendel’s mix of fluency and power plus a touch of old school sweetness really is that good. Zaleski followed with another impressive solo and the number closed with a series of colourful drum breaks from the excellent Maddren. It’s been fascinating to watch Maddren develop as a drummer over the years. He’s always been a precise, responsive, imaginative player but he has now added raw power to his arsenal and can really rattle the tubs if the situation demands. His playing in this context exhibited all these qualities, a consistently imaginative polyrhytmic flow, razor sharp reactions to what was going on around him and moments of sheer exuberance as witnessed here. Maddren takes an obvious delight in his music making, often playing with a huge grin on his face, and is a musician who is right on top of his game.
The title track from “The Gate” slowed things down a little. From Donkin’s expressive solo bass intro a central motif emerged with piano and softly brushed drums subtly entering into the mix. In essence this was the quartet’s ballad number for the first set, albeit a rather abstract one. Wendell displayed real warmth with his soulful tenor solo, playing for a long period in saxophone trio format as Zaleski sat back. The pianist’s own solo was flowingly lyrical as he steered the quartet towards the gentle coda.
“One for Johnny” varied the album running order, the title a dedication to two unlikely musical bedfellows who both happen to be heroes of Donkin’s - Johnny Hodges and Johnny Rotten. Jazz listeners will be pleased to learn that the piece sounded more like the former as Wendel stated the theme on tenor following Maddren’s absorbing solo drum intro. However it was Zaleski who took the first solo, a delightful blues inflected confection underpinned by the gently swinging grooves of Donkin and Maddren. After a brief statement from Wendel the second major solo went to Donkin before a final return to the main theme.
Donkin’s arrangement of Monk’s “Introspection” then closed an excellent first set. However there was nothing introspective about the quartet’s playing as they tackled the challenges of the tune with skill and conviction. Donkin’s vigorous solo bass intro set the tone, quickly joined by drums, piano and finally tenor. Zaleski’s solo was positively exuberant and there were subsequent features from Wendell and Maddren as the first half closed on an energetic note.
Set two began with Donkin and Maddren establishing a powerful groove on “Submerged” , a multi faceted piece that drew on the modal jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane while retaining something of the feel of an earlier standard yet still hinting at more recent developments. Contained within all this were solos from Wendell and Zaleski, the latter a minimalist yet highly imaginative construction making extensive use of single notes. Once more the piece was crowned by a feature for Maddren at the drums.
Donkin speaks with a curiously Mid Atlantic accent, a blend of North East England and New York and the theme of “Butterfingers” added a touch of English whimsy to his more obvious American influences. Wendel’s solo included an oblique reference to the standard “All The Things You Are” , an allusion that also features on the recorded version. Supported by the elastic grooves of Donkin and Maddren he played for a lengthy period in the saxophone trio format before finally handing over to Zaleski.
“The Lost Shoe” was this set’s ballad feature, ushered in by a classically influenced solo piano introduction from Zaleski. The theme statement came from Wendel, subtly supported by Zaleski’s sparse chording and Maddren’s delicately brushed drums and cymbals. Donkin’s bass solo was melodic, resonant and lyrical with sensitive comping from Zaleski that allowed plenty of space to his leader. Wendell’s feature offered more soulful tenor, soaring up into the altissimo register as his solo developed. The piece ended as it began with Zaleski playing a single note at the piano.
The breezy “Birthday Samba”, actually written on Donkin’s birthday closed the second set. The busy Brazilian rhythms were the jumping off point for a garrulous tenor solo from the Canadian born Wendel, plus further sparkling solos from Zaleski and Maddren on a piece that represented a joyously robust celebration of this quartet’s prodigious musical talents.
After a degree of coaxing from Jazz at Dempsey’s Brenda O’ Brien the quartet returned for a well deserved encore. I suspect that it was an extended version of the album track “Yesterday At My House” with its tricky boppish head fuelling a marathon solo from Wendel above Donkin’s rapid bass walk and Maddren’s sizzling ride cymbal, shades here of Donny McCaslin’s epic soloing during the encore of a set co-led by American trumpeter Jason Palmer and French pianist Cedric Hanriot. Zaleski followed Wendel with an equally feverish piano solo and Maddren delighted in a series of explosive drum breaks. At the heart of it all was the turbo charged rhythmic drive of the leader’s bass.
I calculated that the band had played ten of the album’s twelve tracks. The two pieces that were omitted were the attractive ballad “Matriarch” and the elegiac snippet of Shostakovich that closes the album.
As you may have gathered I enjoyed this gig enormously, probably more than the “Gate” recording itself. For me the album suffers from the same problem as Jochen Ruekert’s Whirlwind album “We Make The Rules”. Both records contain some excellent musicianship and brilliant soloing but suffer from a lack of genuinely melodic or memorable tunes. Donkin’s themes are never less than interesting and present excellent vehicles for the soloists but after a while they do tend to sound very similar in terms of both style and pace. This is very much a case of jazz for the purists or music for musos, which probably explains why the RWCMD students enjoyed it so much. At seventy two minutes “The Gate” is also arguably far too long although its understandable why Donkin should wish to cram in as much music as possible bearing in mind that this is his leadership début.
Nevertheless this was a great live experience and I’m glad that I was there. My thanks to Glenn Zaleski for talking with me during the interval, he’s a genuinely nice guy and this was his first time in the UK. I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more from him. Wendel is already an established name and a world class soloist and the two Brits also produced brilliant performances.
“The Gate” tour continues with Julian Siegel replacing Wendel for the last date. Wendel is returning to the US to play with Kneebody at the Seattle Jazz Festival. I’m sure that Julian will do a fantastic job in his regular role as “super sub”.
The remaining tour dates are shown below;
6.3.15 8:30pm Sheffield Jazz @ Millennium Hall,
Polish Centre, 520 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield S11 8PY
0114 266 5425
10.3.15 8:30pm Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho
10 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 3RW
020 7437 9595
11.3.15 7:30pm Urban Coffee,
30 Church St, Colmore Business District, Birmingham B3 2NP
0121 236 0207
12.3.15 8:30pm The Spin,
The Wheatsheaf, 129 High Street, Oxford OX1 4DF
13.3.15 ** 8:30pm Wakefield Jazz Club,
Eastmoor Road, Wakefield, West Yorkshire WF1 3RR
** With Julian Siegel replacing Ben Wendel on sax
9.3.15 9am - 6pm
Royal Academy of Music,
Marylebone Road, London NW1 5HT
020 7873 7373
Guildhall School of Music & Drama,
Silk Street, Barbican, London EC2Y 8DT
020 7628 2571
2pm - 4pm Birmingham Conservatoire,
Paradise Place, Fletchers Walk, Birmingham B3 3HG
0121 331 5901
Trinity Laban College,
King Charles Court, Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London SE10 9JF
020 8305 4444
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